Cries of ‘analysis paralysis’ are more often fiction than fact. Every time I’ve heard someone call out the phrase in a meeting it’s to end a argument over some particular solution preference rather than an attempt end to an overly long analysis process. The problem isn’t too much analysis, it’s too little. Surrounded by weak, muddy and conflicting information we often fail to find a clear call to action that we can easily latch onto and end up playing what if with the weak solutions that we can find, unable to commit to one. We need to take a more structured approach to traveling from problem to solution – scan, focus and then act – and apply our judgement rather than trying to skip directly to the end of the book and then arguing about the conclusion.
Why is it so hard to incent our companies or teams to do anything innovative? Something tangible that makes a difference to the top or bottom line. The vast majority of innovation programmes seem to deliver little more that some nice demos before the programme peters out, with stakeholders often happy to return to their usual duties. The problem is that innovation is neither a product or a process, nor is it a skill; innovation is an artefact of culture, and culture is something that you cannot buy, hire or implement. The reason that most companies fail to innovate – despite significant investment in innovation – is that innovation is a result of culture and their culture actively prevents them from realising anything innovative.
Innovation (whatever that is1)What is innovation? @ PEG) has become the Mecca for modern business. In today’s turbulent environment everyone is looking for that new idea or product, that innovation, which will give them an edge. Nowhere is this more obvious than the crowded market places for smartphones and mobile applications, where crowds of companies compete to become the next iPhone, Angry Birds or FarmVille. It’s hard to stand out in a crowded market and you need something unique, something innovative to grab the public’s attention.
In their quest for the next big (innovative) thing, management teams engage innovation consultancies, create innovation functions and programmes, and hire the hot new skills which claim to be the next source of innovation. (Yesterday it was portfolio management; today, Design Thinking, next some are claiming that it’s the skills provided by a liberal arts degree.) The hope it that a tangible investment will result in an intangible outcome, as if innovation is something that can be standardised and transformed into a repeatable process. None of these approaches work reliably.
Innovation, of course, extends to more than casual games and mobile phones. Apple seems to have established a track record for innovation across a number of sectors, Amazon has proved itself to be a lot more than a simple web retailer, while 3M has a long history of bringing interesting products to market (PostIt notes, Scotchguard, Goretex…). We’re also seeing success at the bottom end of the market, where companies such as Kogan2)Kogan are finding new (innovative) was to products to waiting customers at a price point radically lower than traditional bricks and mortar retailers.
At the individual level we find the innovator situated in a broader context. The questing of Pablo Picasso, Jimi Hendrix, Laurie Anderson and Miles Davis was woven into and built apon ideas that they found around them as they tried to make sense of the world. Picasso’s desire to draw a picture showing all sides of the subject once built on Cézanne’s abstract shapes and resulted in cubism. Miles Davis wanted to bring the some of the soul from Sly Stone’s work into the world of Jazz, and created fusion and Bitches’ Brew in the process. New work – innovation – is created by cultural accretion, as the artisan pulls in tools, techniques and ideas from the community around them as they search for the best way to express their aspirations. The innovator’s role is to provide the focus, the drive to realise a new idea, that enables these previously disparit threads together. The context that enables them to do this is the culture, the thick soup of ideas that that’s been simmering for generations.
The common thread running through innovators — both businesses and individuals — is cultural. They approach the problem of innovation obliquely, if they approach it at all. Jon Ives, for example, is on record as claiming that Apple “just makes products that we would love to own ourselves”. Innovation is not something discovered, rather than something intentionally designed. “I’ll play it first, and tell you what it is later”, as Miles Davis said. Rather than invest in innovation functions and processes, or hire innovation gurus, and striving to be innovative, they are focused on solving problems. Tools, techniques and skills (such as Design Thinking) are pulled in as needed to solve a problem, instead of being implemented in the hope that they will instil innovation in whatever we’re doing. Sometimes the focus, the drive to realise a new idea, comes from the top-down, as in Apple’s case. Other times it works bottom-up, as with 3M’s more organic approach to innovation that allows individuals to vote with their feet.
Whether organic or structured, innovation is the result of two things. First is a rich and diverse cultural soup full of the ideas and skills that the innovator can draw on. A culture that values the learning and investigation needed to constantly enrich the soup, and one that extends beyond the wall of the organisation or individual to draw on, and appropriate, ideas an needed.
Second is the imperative, the desire, to follow through on an idea, to realise an idea or find a more elegant solution to a problem. Sometimes is means providing the time and space to develop and idea, but often it means proving constraints to drive the creative process. These constraints might involve time and money, forcing a team to solve a problem faster or more cheaply than a conventional approach would allow. Or the constraints might be written into the requirements, such as Steve Job’s desire to eliminate all but one button to create a more elegant solution.
The failure of many efforts to instil innovation into existing organisations is that they focus on the tools, and forget that innovation is the result of a culture more than it is a process. Without the drive to try something new, and permission to pull in the ideas and tools are most valuable, any investment in innovation will just result in little more than a bright flash followed by silence. Innovation is not something you can buy. It’s the result of the organisational culture you have create, and culture is the hardest thing to change.
At the age of eleven on a winter’s afternoon in 1905, Frank Epperson left his drink on the back porch overnight. It was a fruit flavoured concoction popular at the time, made from soda water powder and water. Next morning, Frank found his drink frozen solid, with the stirring stick poking out of it.
18 years later, Epperson decided to apply for a patent on his “frozen ice on a stick.” He called the novelty the “Eppsicle” ice pop and began producing Eppsicles in several different flavours. A father by then, his children had begun referring to the Eppsicle as the Popsicle. Later he officially changed the name.
A winning formula for hard economic times [New York Times]
India is not an easy place, and to be fatalistically creative is to transcend its hardships. It is to chafe daily against the way things run; to resist the idealistic temptation to change all that; and to strive instead for success and solutions within the constraints.
I just realised that the approach to basket ball described by The no-stars all star, from the NY Times, is a nice model for innovation (whatever that is).
I’ve been struggling for a while to understand how to define innovation other than retrospectively (isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing). We can pin down invention, customer need, product development, marketing etc. — all the elements to make an innovation successful — but picking an innovation seems the impossible task.
Efforts to define and codify innovation are like capturing lightening in a bottle. You can’t systematise a process which has a large degree of luck to it. What you can do, though, is to be prepared. This is where tools like design thinking fit in.
The interesting thing about the basketball article is that the coach admitted that basketball is a numbers game. Given the game’s high scoring rate, it’s not enough to have killer skills; there’s a large element of luck involved: being in the right place at the right time.
The coach’s approach is to try and increase his chances of being lucky, which he uses two tactics to achieve:
Try and be as efficient as possible.
Try to make your opposition as inefficient as possible.
The coach grinds the numbers to understand what are the odds of sinking or blocking a shot in each and every position on the court, and for each and every player. He then focuses on positioning his players to improve his odds, while reducing the odds of the opposing team. This makes his team more efficient, and more likely to capitalise on an opportunity, and the opposition less efficient, and less likely to capitalise on an opportunity. Think: forcing an opponent to shoot from the right when he prefers (and is more successful with) the left.
A common mistake is to assume that innovation is a creative processes: it’s not (you can always steal the idea rather than think of it yourself). Many of the tools we use to help companies to manage innovation are focused on making them more efficient in managing the innovation journey: focusing their energies where they are needed the most. Now with basketball as an inspiration, it might be possible to bring these tools together in a more scientific framework.
It seems that every time I find a web reference for Peter Drucker’s seven sources of innovation, the web site dies. So after yet-another site going the way of the dodo, I’ve decided to record them here, in this blog, so I at least have a stable thumbnail definition to point folk at.
Peter Drucker’s seven sources of innovation:
The unexpected. The unexpected success, failure or outside event.
The incongruity. The difference between reality as it actually is and reality as it is assumed to be or as it “ought to be.”
Innovation based on process need.
Changes in industry structure or market structure that catch everyone unawares.
(Yep, this is a cross post from Stuff I find interesting, but the missive grew to the point that I thought it worthwhile putting it on this blog as well.)
I stumbled across a rather interesting, and rather old (in internet terms), blog post today: T-Shaped + Sun-Shaped People by David Armano. I suppose you could say that it’s a build on the old idea of t-shaped people, folk with deep experience in one domain (their core discipline). As the post quotes, from Tim Brown at IDEO:
We look for people who are so inquisitive about the world that they’re willing to try to do what you do. We call them “T-shaped people.” They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T — they’re mechanical engineers or industrial designers. But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need. That’s what you’re after at this point — patterns that yield ideas.
I’ve always found the concept of t-shaped people interesting and troubling at the same time. One the one hand their broader view provides them with some sensitivity for the problems and experience to be found in other domains. On the other, it reeks of dilettantism, as there is no rational behind their interest other than curiosity (what’s it like on the other side of the fence?). This leaves you a victim of the dogma of your core discipline, with the cross discipline stuff just window dressing.
For a while I’ve thought (and spoken) of then need to have some sort of coherent focus to our interests, something beyond the doctrine we learnt in our early twenties and which largely defines us. I think we need this focus for a few different reasons.
Firstly, it provides helps us identify the sort of problems we want to solve beyond the constraints of a well defined discipline. I’m interested in how people solve problems, which leads me to working in everything from (business) strategy down to workflow design.
Secondly, it provides you with a framework to identify and integrate new ideas and domains into your toolkit. It’s a bit like Bruce Lee’s ideas of “adopt what you can use” from Jeet Kyne Do. For years I’ve been finding, collecting, evaluating and then either integrating ideas from areas as diverse as logic and science, (bio-medical) engineering, history, philosophy (including the likes of Cicero), human factors, business theory (Michael Porter an the like) and even computer science (particularly AI). You don’t collect random ideas (a la TED), you find useful tools which integrate with and add value to your toolkit.
Thirdly, it provides you with a mechanism to cope with the deluge of information we live in today. There’s a lot of talk of the need for smart filters, which I’ve always had a problem with. Perhaps it’s my little internal John Boyd, but we shouldn’t be just throwing away valuable information. A more intelligent approach is to have a framework — a focus — which makes it easier to integrate the information into our world view. (There’s probably a whole post in this point alone.)
David’s post posited the concept of sun-shaped person, which sounds a lot like this idea of having a consistent focus.
Most of us have some kind of passion in a specific area. For some—it’s a hobby or interest. For others, it’s directly related to our work. I fall into the latter category. If you were to ask me what my “passion is”—I would probably say that at the core, it’s creative problem solving. This is pretty broad and incorporates a lot of disciplines that can relate to it. But that’s the point. What if we start with our passions regardless of discipline, and look at the skills which radiate out from it the same way we think about how rays from the sun radiate warmth?
I think this makes a lot of sense, and fits in a lot more neatly with the direction the world is headed, than the concept of a t-shaped individual. Who doesn’t wear multiple hats these days? How much of your job is actually related to your job title? And don’t we all steal ideas from other disciplines?
Tying yourself to a single domain — I’m a supply chain person, I’m a techo, I do human factors — is committing yourself to doing the same thing that you did yesterday. Your marking yourself as a domain specialist. The challenge is that we seem to be entering an age where we need more generalists. Last year you worked in finance, this year your building robots, next year you might be in durable goods. Your focus, your passions, won’t have changed, but what you do day-to-day will have. That sounds a lot like the sun shaped individual to me.